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Blaming Unions for Bad Schools

It's so easy to scapegoat teachers' unions for all the ills afflicting public schools ("State of the Teachers Union," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 6).  The charge is that they are more interested in protecting teachers than in teaching students ("This is what teachers unions really protect," New York Post, Jul. 6).  Critics point to the success of charter schools, which are overwhelmingly non-union, as evidence.

But what these critics don't admit is that states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, which have strong teachers unions, also post high test scores. Is that merely a coincidence or is it evidence that the critics are wrong?  (Correlation is not causation.)  Moreover, not all charter schools post positive results by any means.

But since the new factor in the debate is the presence of charter schools, let's take a closer look at Los Angeles, home of the nation's second largest school district.  The Los Angeles Unified School District has more charter schools than any other system in the country, with 16 percent of students enrolled in charters.  Yet the LAUSD still posts lackluster outcomes. 

Equally unimpressive are results at the state level. Nearly 10 percent of students in California schools - more than 570,000 - are enrolled in charters.  Yet California ranks second-to-last in test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Critics will be quick to argue that the percentage of students in charter schools still is too small to draw conclusions.  I don't buy that assertion because I believe it is a Trojan horse for abolishing teachers' unions. 

Depicting teachers' unions as the villains was the basis for Vergara v. California. Plaintiffs argued that the laws awarded tenure to teachers far too easily and then made it far too difficult to fire those deemed "grossly ineffective."  But the California Supreme Court declined to review the appellate decision.

If teachers' unions are indeed to blame for the admittedly appalling performance of some schools, then ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would be a way of bringing them into line.  But the court correctly recognized that students don't always succeed for reasons having nothing to do with tenure and unions.  That goes for all states.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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